Last Modified: Mar 28, 2011 03:14PM
So happiness is overrated. A little over a year ago, I happened to write: “The culture tells my children and me that we are supposed to be happy all the time. Sure, happiness might — or might not be — the byproduct of a well-lived life. ... But while I myself tend to be a happy person, I don’t seek happiness as an end game. It’s not deep enough or rich enough or joyful enough or sustaining enough to make a life’s goal.”
It must have been mother’s intuition. It turns out that more and more research is backing up my hunch that focusing on personal happiness actually can make us pretty unhappy.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.”
Shirley Wang wrote in the article, “Is Happiness Overrated?,” that “in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.”
My original column was in response to a then-newly released statistical review, published in Clinical Psychology Review, showing that five times as many young people are experiencing depression and anxiety today as did similarly aged youth studied during the Great Depression. And no, it’s not primarily due to better reporting or less stigma about such things.
Dr. Carol Ryff is director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and a leader in the growing science of positive psychology. Her findings were included in the Journal piece. I talked to Ryff and asked her: What the heck is going on?
She explained that there are two kinds of happiness researchers are looking at. One is “hedonic” or based on feeding the appetite in the moment. The other is eudaimonic (from the Greek), and is more about having a sense of well-being over time.
Ryff told me that researchers are not primarily focusing on whether our culture has become more hedonistic. (Maybe it’s that crazy mother’s intuition of mine again, but I’d say the answer is a huge yes.) Rather, she said, researchers are looking at the physical and psychological benefits of focusing on feeling good in the moment vs. focusing first on leading fuller, more purposeful lives over time.
For instance, we talked about the research repeatedly showing that parents who have children living at home are not as happy as childless couples. If one is looking at happiness in the hedonistic sense — particularly while doing laundry and/or being accused by said children of “ruining their lives!” — my answer is, duh, of course that’s true. But there is purpose and fulfillment and satisfaction in raising children over time that produces its own eudaimonic happiness. And I wouldn’t trade the two for the world.
So much of life is like that. But for a number of reasons today, it seems to a lot of folks like me that our culture is focusing more on hedonistic happiness. Maybe that’s because we live in a more materialistic time or there’s been a decline in spiritual values. Whatever the reasons, we lose a lot of joy in the tradeoff.
Ryff said she thinks today we believe “it’s almost a virtue to be happy, and a personal failing if we are not. We get confused about the target we are reaching for. It’s worth reminding people there are a variety of ways to be happy and some are not as good for you as others.”
Or maybe we need to discover these wise words of John Stewart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher who wrote that “happiness is not likely to be achieved if you make it an end in itself. It is the byproduct of other more noble deeds.”
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